I doubt many had Jaguars vs. Browns as one of the most compelling matchups of Week 13, but it certainly played out that way. The lead went back and forth several times, and the crazy plays by Josh Gordon and Cecil Shorts down the stretch combined with a crazy safety on a botched snap by Browns center Alex Mack created all the drama you could want.
The Jacksonville Jaguars went into their Week 9 bye with a record of 0-8, and they were staring the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft in the face. Cleveland entered its Week 10 bye with a 4-5 record and a shot at an AFC playoff spot.
Fast-forward to December, and the Jaguars sit at 3-9 after winning three of their four post-bye games, while the Browns have dropped three consecutive games and have a disappointing 4-8 record.
Jacksonville's 3-4 road record is a surprise to most considering how ineffective the Jaguars were in the first half of the season. But a revitalized defense, a much-improved running game, and a game plan that emphasizes their strengths and attempts to hide their weaknesses have helped the Jaguars turn a disappointing season into one full of hope for the future.
I predicted the Browns would win this game, but many had other opinions, including Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller:
Brandon Weeden is the sole reason I picked the #Jaguars to win today.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 1, 2013
I must have underestimated the Weeden factor; he helped the Jaguars immensely by turning the ball over three times in under three minutes to end the first half, basically handing Jacksonville 13 free points.
If you were one of the folks rooting for a loss, you must hate fun because this win was a blast. What did we learn about the Jaguars during this week's exciting matchup?
With 4:14 left in the game, the Jaguars held a 25-21 lead over the Browns after a Josh Scobee field goal following the Brandon Weeden kick safety. They kicked off, and an illegal block in the back penalty backed the Browns up to their own five-yard line.
Enter Josh Gordon.
On the first play of the drive, Brandon Weeden dropped back and found Gordon down the right side for a solid gain. Jaguars safety Winston Guy went for the pass breakup and whiffed, leaving Gordon nothing but open space.
The Browns' dynamic receiver outraced Johnathan Cyprien and Dwayne Gratz to the end zone for a 95-yard touchdown, putting the Jaguars behind 28-25. It was a demoralizing blow to Jacksonville; the Jaguars had all the momentum, and the Browns simply took it away.
Gus Bradley's group didn't give up. With under four minutes left, the Jaguars marched down the field, reaching the Cleveland 20-yard line with 45 seconds remaining.
The resilient Jaguars could have settled for a field goal, but Chad Henne had other plans. Cecil Shorts ran a double-move route against Browns corner Joe Haden, who bit on the fake and left Shorts open in the end zone for the go-ahead 20-yard touchdown.
Jacksonville could've rolled over after Josh Gordon had seemingly crushed its hopes of winning, but it didn't. Head coach Gus Bradley's message seems to be hitting home. This team doesn't give up and doesn't seem to be as affected by adversity as it was in the first half of the season.
Gus Bradley is the right man for the job in Jacksonville, and the Jaguars keep proving it in the second half of the season.
The Jaguars entered Week 13 ranked 15th in the NFL in receiving yards allowed with an average of 252.6 yards per game. They were especially impressive last week, allowing only 141 passing yards to the Texans in their 13-6 win over Houston.
Josh Gordon almost doubled that total by himself.
The Browns' playmaking wide receiver racked up a ridiculous 261 yards on 10 catches and scored twice, including a 95-yard touchdown catch where he outraced two Jaguars defensive backs to the end zone.
Jacksonville's pass defense was the second half of two NFL records set by Gordon:
Josh Gordon is first player in NFl history with back to back 200+-yard receiving games.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 1, 2013
.@Browns WR Josh Gordon has set an NFL record for most receiving yards in a 2 game span— Dan Murphy (@DMurph_BrownsPR) December 1, 2013
Though any defense can have a bad game, this was more of an indicator that the Jaguars' pass defense still has work to do. Their pass rush wasn't bad at all, but they still allowed Brandon Weeden time to find Gordon early and often.
The Jaguars are steadily improving, and the pass defense is definitely better now than it was the first few weeks of the season, but it's far from a finished product. Hopefully they continue to make progress as 2013 enters its final month.
When Mike Brown went down with an injury in Week 10, the burden of replacing suspended receiver Justin Blackmon in the Jaguars' offense fell to rookie fourth-rounder Ace Sanders.
Sanders entered Week 11 with 16 career catches for 182 yards through nine games and hadn't really been a major part of the game plan.
Against the Browns, Sanders racked up eight catches for a career-high 67 yards and picked up six first downs all by himself, five on receptions and one on a pitch play. He converted three third downs, almost half of the Jaguars' seven total conversions on 16 third downs.
Ace was open repeatedly on short curls, quick slants and wide receiver screens. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch clearly game-planned to get Sanders in space, and he was an excellent safety valve for quarterback Chad Henne, who had trouble finding anybody downfield for much of the game.
With his short-area quickness and ability to reach full speed almost immediately, Sanders can be a dangerous offensive weapon, and it's nice to see him becoming a larger part of the game plan.
Even with Blackmon back on the field next season, I fully expect Sanders to be a major part of the Jaguars' passing game.
Many times this year we've discussed Sen'Derrick Marks' fantastic play and his spot in the Jaguars' future plans. But his performance this week demands that we revisit that.
In the box score, Marks was credited with three tackles, a sack, a pass defensed, a quarterback hit and a fumble recovery.
In reality, his impact on this game was larger than that.
Marks continually blew up the Browns' pocket and forced quarterback Brandon Weeden to move around in the pocket. He was disruptive in the running game and constantly manhandled blockers to allow others to make plays.
The three sacks Marks has picked up this year mark a career high, but the most impressive thing about him has been his ability to bat down passes. His long arms allow him to swat balls out of the air even when he's not able to get to the quarterback.
Entering Week 13, Marks led the league among defensive tackles in passes defensed with seven, and he added one to his total against the Browns. Only Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson had more passes defensed among defensive linemen overall (eight).
Given Marks' play this season, I'd be surprised if general manager Dave Caldwell's first move of the offseason isn't locking up Marks to a long-term deal. The big man has definitely earned himself some money this year.
Jacksonville entered Week 13 dead last in the NFL in rushing with an average of 66.8 yards per game. Whether the running back was Maurice Jones-Drew, Jordan Todman, Justin Forsett or Denard Robinson, it was tough sledding for everyone.
The Jaguars' offensive line had struggled to open holes for the running game, but the matchup against Cleveland was the exception. Jacksonville was able to run the ball effectively all game, picking up 112 yards on the ground and keeping the sticks moving.
MJD was solid, though his yards-per-carry average doesn't show it. His 77 yards were picked up on tough runs, and a couple were for negative yardage.
Jordan Todman, meanwhile, had the juice MJD has lacked this year. Todman was explosive and blasted through the holes opened up by Jacksonville's zone-blocking scheme. He picked up 31 yards on only five carries for an average of 6.2 yards per carry.
If it were up to me, Todman and MJD would have a carry split closer to 50/50 rather than the 23/5 advantage Jones-Drew enjoyed against Cleveland.
Still, the Jaguars were able to move the ball on the ground, and being able to do so allowed them the opportunity to win this game. Hopefully they can build on this success going forward.
The Jaguars entered Week 13 with only 13 takeaways, but they picked up three against the Browns that resulted in 13 points. I guess it was the week of 13s.
Within a two-and-a-half-minute stretch to end the first half, Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden threw an interception to safety Johnathan Cyprien, threw an interception to cornerback Dwayne Gratz, and had the ball batted out of his hand by Jason Babin and picked up by Sen'Derrick Marks.
Turnovers aren't as helpful if they don't turn into points, but the Jaguars scored a touchdown after the Cyprien interception and field goals after the last two turnovers, turning a 14-7 deficit into a 20-14 halftime lead.
Jacksonville also received an early Christmas gift from the Browns in the form of a safety when center Alex Mack snapped the ball far over Weeden's head. Weeden got to the ball first and kicked it out the back of the end zone rather than risking a Jaguars recovery for a touchdown, and the Jaguars got two points and a free possession, which they converted into another field goal.
The Jaguars now have 16 turnovers in 2013, a combined seven of which occurred in victories over Tennessee and Cleveland that could have easily been losses. Gus Bradley wants his team to be aggressive and target the ball, and it's pretty clear generating turnovers gives the Jaguars a better chance to win.
Maurice Jones-Drew entered the 2013 season with one career pass attempt, which came, oddly enough, against the Cleveland Browns in 2010. It was intercepted.
Through 12 weeks of the 2013 season, MJD hadn't thrown a single pass; it simply wasn't part of his game. That's not strange considering he's a running back.
However, the Jaguars wanted to diversify their game plan.
After starting with a short field following an interception return by Johnathan Cyprien, the Jaguars ran the ball to the right side twice with MJD, leaving them with a 3rd-and-1 on the Cleveland 8-yard line.
Jones-Drew received the handoff again and headed to the right once more, but this time instead of plowing forward for the first down, he lofted the ball over the Browns defenders to Marcedes Lewis, who was wide open in the end zone for a touchdown.
Per John Oehser of Jaguars.com, offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch "felt strongly" about the MJD pass play:
Bradley says jaguars put in the Mjd pass this week. Says Fisch felt strongly about it. #jaguars— John Oehser (@JohnOehser) December 1, 2013
It paid off, though MJD was less than impressed with his toss:
MJD on TD pass: "I’m glad Marcedes made me look good because it was a horrible throw." #Jaguars— Ryan O'Halloran (@ryanohalloran) December 1, 2013
A creative play from an improving, impressive coaching staff. This play was a microcosm of the game as a whole. MJD's first career passing touchdown was worth the wait.
Many are of the opinion the Jaguars would be better off "Tanking for Teddy" or some other fun alliteration suggesting the team should lose games to get a better draft pick.
As a fan, it's nearly impossible to root for losses, especially with a full quarter of the season left.
When the Jaguars were 0-8 entering their bye, the first overall pick and Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater seemed to be in the cards. The Jaguars were relatively listless and lacked the ability to compete with most teams.
However, with three wins in their past four games, it's clear the Jaguars are making progress. Rebuilding is a process, and it starts with improvement. Without improvement from the players already on the roster, no one draft pick would be able to fix the mess on the field.
Sen'Derrick Marks, Alan Ball, Andre Branch, Austin Pasztor and Geno Hayes are a few veterans who have taken steps forward this season. Rookies Dwayne Gratz, Johnathan Cyprien and Ace Sanders have clearly improved from the start of the year. This was the goal all along.
Though it would be nice to have the first overall pick and add Teddy Bridgewater to the pieces already in place, it won't be the end of the world if the Jaguars draft Derek Carr instead. Or Johnny Manziel. Or Jadeveon Clowney. Or someone else.
Trust the front office. Trust the coaching staff. This rebuilding process has just begun, but it's clearly on the right track. I enjoyed this win immensely despite its potential draft ramifications; hopefully you did as well.